‘Social security funds to cover costs for leg prostheses made by 3D bio-printers": science fiction or reality?

AD – 11/2018

3D printing creates softened raw materials, such as ceramic, plastic and metal, and then uses fine-dose nozzles, similar to an ink-jet printer, to make a three-dimensional object, layer by layer. A method of hardening the material (for example, by cooling it) is necessary. Moulds or similar tools are not needed. The whole process is computer-controlled and requires a three-dimensional template to be stored in the computer. As a result, the product can only be as precise as the template used to make it.

The European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA) has taken a close look at the impact the use of 3D printers in production would have, for example, on producing human body parts as ‘spare parts’. The study is available on the European Parliament’s website.

How does 3D bio-printing work?

Since the early 2000s, 3D printers have been used to make dentures. In its narrowest sense, 3D bio-printing mainly uses organic material to make body parts such as bones and organs. Ideally, the patient’s own cells are used in order to help prevent the body from rejecting foreign bodies. Another advantage is that customised components can be produced for patients, virtually next to the operating table. However, this also increases the cost of treatment.

Access to treatment for all?

Given the possibility of inequalities in healthcare, the question arises as to whether access to the benefits offered by 3D bio-printers will be open to all citizens, even if they do not have the necessary financial resources. Technological advancements have not yet changed the mandate of the German Social Code, according to which the social insurance institutions in Germany must bear the costs of sufficient, financially-viable and appropriate treatment.


Currently, the possibilities of 3D bio-printing are still limited – more science-fiction than reality. However, many experts agree that stakeholders in the field of healthcare should already be dealing with the realities of not only tomorrow but also the day after tomorrow.